Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The "H" Party Report & Wednesday in Soelden

Carol Mast reports that a new SM Euro tradition was started; the "H" party. All the attendees needed to adopt an "H" theme in their dress or manner. Confused? Well, read on and it may make sense.

WEDNESDAY MORNING REPORT: Carol reports and asks:how many “H” ideas did we identify last night?

Yes, there were the predictable Hawaiian shirts on many, perhaps still packed from last year’s trip. But imagination ran rampant, with a genuine Hippie (Craig) doing a perfect young-Ozzie Osborne, a Hypochondriac (Nancy) with H labels taped all over a
hospital gown. Herpes, Hysterectomy, Hemorhoids, Hyperrtension, Hemangioma, and two dozen more. Holy Hotcakes! Two Hunchbacks, and a HoneyBear. Your reporter put a Happy Face sticker on everyone, just Happy to be Here! Claudeen, with wings and a halo, was our Heavenly Hostess, and conducted the spirited voting from the bed, as every bit of floor space in the room (we held the party on a balcony as there was
more space least until it got too cold!) was filled and pronounced the winner…Craig, the Hippie! The prize was a box of liquour-filled chocolates PLUS a tiny alpine cow-bell with the letter “H” on the keychain tag. VERY Austrian, VERY “H”.

The Spoon was awarded to Bob McD for reasons beyond comprehension, some convoluted story regarding a 2+ hour wait on the mountain for others who had promised to be at a certain spot and, being Bob, he waited, and the saga goes on from there. It involves the three beers he drank wihle waiting, but you’ll have to ask him for further details.

Several of us had “packing” dreams overnight, and it is only Wednesday.We have been told repeatedly that we MUST have a small overnight bag to take into the hotel in Munich on Friday night before early Saturday departure to Frankfurt and on to Seattle, and it is beginning to sink in. The Party is not over, but we have only two days to ski together and that isn’t a happy prospect at all! The sun is out skys are clear and the wind direction has shifted, promising even warmer weather tomorrow,
according to our hotel owner/manager, who recommends heavy sun screen.

It appears that our group virus has run it’s course, with 8 of us missing a day or more of skiing. Our only casualty is Dr. Mark, who suffered two broken ribs, but is skiing none-the-less. Brave or crazy, you decide!

WEDNESDAY APRES SKI REPORT: We are back at the hotel, having danced through the softening snow on the slopes above Soelden. You may notice that yesterday’s entry used the S-o-with and umlaut-den spelling, but that was computer whiz Jazon’s expertise and this typist is going to use the Anglicized version that appears at about the same frequency as the o-with-umlaut variety. The same goes for the Ice Man, Oetzi and the Oetztal and Oetz River…all have that o-with-umlaut so be advised that these words will be spelled in both ways when you read about them here and elsewhere.

OK, so about the skiing; icy morning even though a large contingent went up at 10:30 today. That softened up fairly soon and turned to corny snow briefly before becoming coconut shave ice, really a lot of fun to ski in until it was time to come back to the valley floor. Some decided to download and celebrated the decision when it became obvious that two bare roads would have required stepping out of skis and
carrying them across. It’s springime in the Alps even though trees are not budding and the hillsides are showing no green as yet. We are all skiing in windshirts with single layers underneath and slathering on the sun block with varying levels of success. Bob McD, Claudeen and Nancy have tans like magazine models. Jason looks like a Hawaiian beach boy. Larry looks like a nuclear bomb blast victim. Others are wearing varieties of protection with zinc oxide, so we are a mixed lot as far
as appearance goes.

But we are a championship lunch bunch, for certain. Today featured a planned stop at the Lopple (I think that’s the spelling) in a little dip down a killer steep cat track in slush-covered ice. It was worth it! Nice cold beers, goulash soup, wurst, sauted spuds with a sunnyside egg and sliced onions on top, crispy hot frites, wiener schnitzel and another version of yesterday’s featured recipe, Kaiserschmarrn.

Toni, our waiter, patiently took everyone’s camera for group shots and a half dozen of himself mugging between cameras. Vickie told us that there was live music at the next hut down the hill, so we suited up and followed…perhaps two turns and 100 yards. The band was off today but the sound system played 60s music and we enjoyed a second beer or a pear schnaaps with an Austrian flag stuck into a chunk of pear…or an egg liiqour that didn’t seem like enough to get a repeat dance performance by Vickie, to the regret of all who saw yesterday’s rock-out on Jason’s I-Phone.

More tomorrow, but perhaps no other report from this laptop, as Carol and Larry leave the group on Saturday and internet connection in Saas Fee is uncertain. Perhaps someone in the Seattle-bound group can be persuaded to take over the blog. Cheers!

Sun, Smiles and Spring Skiing at Soelden

Claudeen reports that the sun gods have blessed the 2010 tour group in Soelden. You can look at the photos and judge for yourself.

Last evening the traditional "Crazy Hat" party was replaced by an "H" party. Each guest was to devise a costume based on the letter "H". For confidentiality reasons (or so she says!) Claudeen was unwilling to share photos of fellow travelers. (Perhaps she thinks the photos will have blackmail value at some later date.) In any case she did share her own creation for she came, if you can believe it, as the Heavenly Hostess!

I am sure Carol's report will shed more light on the festivities.

Click any of the photos to enlarge them.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

European Hotels; Part of the Grand Adventure

Over the past 22 years this blogster has traveled to Europe 11 times with Ski Masters. I can’t recall how many times we’ve been asked, “why go over there? Is the skiing that much different than in the U.S?”

The simple answer is “no; the skiing is not different but the experience is quite different.” The SM Euro trips are about the ski areas, the group, the food, the language, the customs…. Traveling and skiing in Europe is just different and, as you might surmise from our 11 trips, we enjoy it.

Ron Lyle, the co-founder of SM Euro Trips, made the point again and again. If you want a U.S. travel experience, stay in the U. S. If you want something different, something more adventurous perhaps, come along and taste the European ski experience.

Nowhere are the differences more pronounced than in the hotel system. There are fewer chain hotels. Many are family owned. Room sizes vary from hotel to hotel and, at times, within the same hotel. I recall our room in St Moritz. It was the “brochure” room; big enough for a party with a view all the way to Italy. Others on the trip were in the “old” part with less space and no view. We did not bribe the trip leader. It was the luck of the room assignment.

From early reports the 2010 crew had a wonderful hotel week one and a less wonderful one week two. The week two rooms are smaller and the staff is, how shall I say, more Austrian!

It isn’t always the facilities that make or break a hotel experience in Europe or the U.S., for that matter. The staff makes a big difference. A few years ago we stayed at Le Post, in Covara Italy (also a destination hotel for the 2011 trip.) It was and is family owned, the staff was a delight and we couldn’t have had a better experience. I frankly don’t recall too much about the rooms….they were fine. The next week was in Verbier, Switzerland and things changed. The hotel was fine but the front desk and bar staff seemed to have their shorts in a knot. The staff took the delight out of an otherwise delightful hotel.

The setting also impacts the hotel atmosphere. In 2009 the group visited Wengen, one of our favorite areas. The town is so charming that it rubbed off on our family owned and equally charming hotel adding synergy to the whole Wengen visit. Because the hotel was older than most of the guests and had been modernized several times, no two rooms were the same which added to the sense of adventure.

The next week was at Alp d’Huez, in a contemporary hotel in a contemporary ski town with a wonderful lift system and skiing. The rooms were pretty consistent and the service more than adequate. But the place couldn’t avoid comparison with the family run hotel in the village of Wengen.

So what’s the point? The point is that each trip and hotel experience creates myth and memories for the SM Euro travelers. If all the hotels in Europe were Hiltons then what would be the point in traveling nine hours to ski. But the hotels, food, staff and the whole experience is what makes the SM Euro trips what they are.

And I think we are signed up for 2011!

Monday in Soelden

Carol Writes: It is Monday in Soelden, and we now remember why we should have headed farther down the Oetztal (valley of the Oetz River) to HochGurgl and OberGurgl yesterday. How is it that we could forget the Sunday crowds here in Soelden and how much better the skiing is to the south? Not to mention the lunch possibilities, which have improved since our last visit to this valley, original home to Oetzi, the early Stone Age mummified man who was discovered in 1991.

Oetzi was literally stumbled on during the late summer glacial melt by a pair of hikers who strayed from the recommended route. Thinking that they’d found a more contemporary loss, they hot-footed it back to Soelden to bring officials to examine the remains. The body was preserved remarkably well and what protruded from the melting glacial surface appearing to be much more modern than the 5,000 year-old corpse they’d found. The ensuing hubbub about Oetzi’s actual location when discovered was complicated by the fact that some time passed between the time the hiking couple had alerted authorities and the date that the location was specificially identified by border officials.

In addition, it appeared that the Italian border was the top of a vertical face, inaccessible from Italy, even by helicopter, as landing would involve Austrian territory. The ensuing argument between Austria and Italy was solved when Italy paid an undisclosed sum to Austria for the rights to the body following scientific examination (which happened in Austria) with the result that Oetzi now resides (as well as a 5K year-old can be said to reside) in Bolzano. Rather than relate a lot of maybe-correct information about that scientific examination (and have
to correct it later) here is a website that should answer any questions you may have. This is right up there with Kennewick Man for palentological controversy!

But back to Skimasters. We woke to 41ºF temps and fog clinging to the hilltops, but all could at least imagine seeing thinning spots, especially to the south. Claudeen was back from the Land of the Ill and arranged for taxis to take us down the valley to HochGurgl and OberGurgl. Translation from the German is pretty straightforward: Hoch means High and Ober means Over, or Higher. The Gurgl is the river in the valley floor, which feeds into the Oetz River. Why take a taxi? Well, you need a skipass to ride the bus (which most of us did on the return) and you could not buy that pass in Soelden. Your reporter watched a German family who arrived at the lifts in OberGurgl with their Soelden pass and were turned back without apology. Auf Wiedersehen!

But Claudeen knows all, and we got our passes and hit the hill without a moment’s wait in line. This was much appreciated after yesterday’s 45 minute line-up, but we discovered a bit of local
knowledge: the slopes are glare ice early in the day, and our skiers enjoyed our exclusive moments on the high runs with varying amounts of pleasure. And varying levels of success.

There is a spectacular vista at the top of the Gurgl range that could only be accessed by a rickety single chair from mid-mountain, with a small antique hut that served hot wine and jaeger tea and little else. Oh, boy! What a difference a few years make! The panorama from the new Hohe Mut Alm (this is probably dialect, but I’ll venture a translation of “High Mother Mountain”. Really) is still as amazing, but the hut has been replaced by a Disneyland version of a mountain restaurant, and of course, a number of us found it. Independently, and within 20 minutes
of the first arrival.

Independent observation noticed orders for: Tea with Rum, Jaeger Tea, Tattinger champagne, Hefewiessen, Pilsner beer, white and red wine in very nice glasses. Food included several orders of piping hot crisp pommes frites, wiener schnitzel, spinat knodel (trust me, this is great…a dumpling composed of bread crumbs tossed with chopped spinach and grated parmesan cheese (formed into a tennis-ball size) then simmered in chicken broth and served in a bowl with browned butter which floats on the chicken broth run-off from the dumpling. There were 3 of them in a serving. This is a thrifty-hausfrau dish, but on the Hohe Mut, it is heaven!

But there’s MORE! There were at least 3 servings of house-made sausage with sauerkraut and browned potatoes, followed by Kaiserschmarrn. Sorry: this requires another translation/recipe: make browned egg crepes and cut them in small pieces. Melt butter in a pan, add sugar and start to brown. Add pancake pieces and sprinkle with more sugar, toss again. Arrange on the serving plate and sprinkle with powdered sugar. Serve with crème anglais…vanilla sauce…and whipped
cream on the side. Oh, and apple sauce and a currant sauce, which is something like cranberry sauce’s more piquant sister. There was also apple strudel, not only on the Hohe Mut, but after descending to ObderGurgl later in the day. And here’s the real confession. The preceding served just NINE of us!

At dinner this evening, the rest of the group shared similar experiences in different locations. But let’s face it: boilerplate is hard on everyone and not much fun. Slush is more fun but also a challenge to our skill, and we were all happy to be sitting in the dining room together. The Spoon was awarded to Asa by Terry, for arriving late to lunch (following a profoundly wrong turn) to discover that the huge platter of ribs ordered as the group lunch had been reduced to bones. Undeterred, Asa found a beer and gnawed off the leftover bits and powered on. Hurrah for Asa!

Tomorrow, we return to the slopes of Soelden, in full confidence that the mobs of Sunday are gone. Tchuus bis Morgen! (Kiss until tomorrow morning!)

42º at 7am Tuesday, with sunny skies giving rise to speculation that higher slopes here in Soelden may be less icy than yesterday’s glaciers. A 10:30 walk down the river to one gondola, 90 minutes after skiers departed, shows NO lineup where the Sunday mob had gathered, so that’s
tomorrow’s plan, at least for this reporter. A bit later, mid-day at the ParkHotel, one can see skiers trudge past in all directions. Have they finished for the day or are they on their way to one of the gondolas ascending to the high slopes? Wind has picked up a bit along the valley floor, flaunting rainbow flags (it’s Gay Week in Soelden, we were told) but t-shirts are as common as parkas on passersby. Lunch at the Central Hotel for a couple of today’s Lay-abouts is on the
program, as is this week’s party, with a theme of “H”. That’s all. Just “H”. Tomorrow’s report will list interpretations of “H”, Hopefully.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Ubergurgl Greets Ski Masters

Our traveling blogger, Carol, has been quiet for a bit but Claudeen was kind enough to send along evidence of the groups activities in Ubergurgl. We assume skiing was invloved as well but the food seems to have center stage with the group.

Not that eating is an unusual activity for Ski Euro travelers. The on the slope food is one of the high points of a trip to Europe.

Click on the photos to enlarge them.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Last full day in Courmayeur

Carol Mast Reports: This is our last full day in Courmayeur, and we already speak of returning. Small sub-groups have ventured off in different directions; some took the public bus back to La Tuile, some headed to the local slopes, some had guides to regions that may require them to harness up and carry their skis up metal steps (so it is rumored) to a tenable place on the glacier. This morning’s threatening cloud cover has given way to full sun with no wind, and only a gentle haze to soften the bright sunlight. Some chose to hang in town to absorb the particular viewpoint of this small mountain town in the Val d’Aosta. And, of course, to shop, especially as woodcarvers from this valley are the pride of Italy.

From the balconies on the street side of our hotel, one can see the bright red cable car ascending the slopes as well as the Dent d’ Geant (the Giant’s Tooth, which is so vertical that no snow covers it) and one of the numerous paired tunnels which connect adjacent valleys with ease, rather than the tortuous narrow winding 2-lane roads of former times. It is no surprise that uniquely local features can be observed in some most mundane details.

For instance: chimney caps are topped here by two varieties of architectural detail. One looks for all the world like an avian condo, with multiple verandas and gabled roof. The second version was repeated in Chamonix, (which is in France) but not in Italian La Thuile, a flat tile over the chimney opening, topped by a triangular single chunk of stone, a mini-Matternhorn. Some variations exist on this second theme, with a cone of smaller stone creating the pinnacle, but the most
attractive exemplars of the form are single triangular blocs of stone with a bit of a curve at the point. Are they functional? Do they deflect snow accumulation? Cut down on flue draft for the fire? Who knows? Who speaks fluent Italian?

The vista down the main road shows off the handsome rounded 2-foot diameter slate roof tiles (which surely came from La Thuile) which boast of the stout construction beneath them. There is not a single blue tarp in sight! There are numerous sattelite dishes which have all but replaced roof-top antennae, although a few remain alongside the dishes, perhaps on the summertime “HoneyDo” list.

We don’t see any sign of ostentatious EuroTrash visitors here; perhaps we are early or late for their arrival. There is a Hermes shop on the plaza, so someone must shop there, but in this lovely warm between-High Seasons week, it is pretty much locals and hard core skiers like ourselves and the Japanese group with whom we share the breakfast room We did hear some American English this morning, two 40-ish men who
talked business non-stop, thought they were suited up for skiing.

Wildlife report includes sighting of a butterfly on the ski slopes at 10,000 ft yesterday, a possibly suicidal black squirrel that performed an almost-fatal crossing of the cat-track on descent to La Thuile, barely missing the chance to decorate someone’s helmet. Dang! Today, there are deer-fly type buzzing insects about the valley floor at mid-day, perhaps looking for a nibble of the dried beef and cheese on the table. Lunch in Val d’Aosta… with a view of a cleft mountain and
distant snow fields lined with retaining walls that are intended to keep the downhill residents safe from avalanche. This is a geologist’s paradise. Who speaks fluent Geology?

Typing those words, I heard a rumble, thinking it was some sort of cart on the cobbled path behind the hotel, but it was a pale grey waterfall of melted snow and rubble across the valley that continued for two minutes or more. It stopped well above any possible habitation, but the image remains. And five minutes later, a softer rumble from the same area of the mountain slope showed a replenishment of the first snowfield, lower in altitude. Now I hear rumbles elsewhere, beyonc the
enclosed valley, and I no longer think of carts on the cobblestones, waiting in anticipation of the return of our friends. And the rumbles continue, prompting a search of the hillside for the source, like counting seconds between thunderclaps and lighting bolts. It must get to be second nature after a while, but at the moment, it is disconcerting.

The SkiMasters version of the Norovirus seems to have run it’s course. Both of our victims are skiing today and no new symptoms are reported. We have had no injuries (your reporter declared a Personal Day to allow a return of the knee to normal size after two 8-hour days on the sticks) and there can’t be a better report than that. At least until dinner!

Thursday, March 18, 2010

La Thuile (It) and La Rosiere (Fr); New Adventures

Here is Carol's Thursday report. Be sure to read on as we also have a post with photos from Claudeen. The good news is that by reading the reports we can share most of the experience without the calories.

Thursday in Espace San Bernard, which encompasses La Thuile (IT) and La Rosiere (F), completely unknown treasures! Claudeen got a tip from our hotel owner’s sons that we should NOT miss this ski area less than 30 minutes from Courmayeur; La Thuile, translated by French-speaking Michelle as “The Tile”, as in roofing tiles, which are huge slate slabs hereabouts. We began the morning with a dead battery as Dietmar, our Austrian bus driver, intended to warm the bus for us. The Italian version of AAA drove up in his mini-Fiat with two batteries and jumper cables and we were off. Dietmar made up for the delay with heroic hairpin curve driving skills, getting us to the gondola through what we concluded was a pedestrians-only passageway just inches wider than the coach. Bravo, Dietmar!

The group split into a half-dozen crews heading in every direction from the tramway exit, with everyone deciding independently to lunch over the border in Le Rosier, France. It seems that we were all thinking “French Fries”, but not until we were able to comprehend and enjoy the size and scope of this gigantic open area that wasn’t on anyone’s list of Must Ski. In fact, we liked it so much that most SkiMasters will go back tomorrow on the public bus, since Dietmar has his formal “day off”” on Friday. As we are staying in an actual town with hotels, he
doesn’t have to spend his off-time in the slide-out mortician-style drawer accommodation which his default sag wagon. He is a gentleman of substantial stature, so it cannot be his favorite option.

This bus driver gig is interesting, and as Dietmar speaks idiomatic English, your reporter was able to pump him for details. He drives for weeks at a time all over Europe, with his customers providing his accommodations wherever they stop. He has driven for rock bands (the name he dropped was Madonna) and ski exhibitions, various special interest tours (geologists, anthropologists, WWII vets from all armies, some of them traveling together to their former battle sites) and groups like ours who want to go into impossible places to park. The good news is that we can always get onto the bus if we come down from skiing early, as he is sitting at the wheel with his laptop or his book. He always has enough cold water and beer for us when we board after skiing, and so far, hasn’t lost patience with any of us. Yet. OK,
should anyone think we are enchanted by our bus driver, think again. But it COULD be an interesting retirement job!

Tonight is the first time we have figured out how to work the SKY television system in our room, and we are surprised to discover that, apparently, nothing has happened in our week away from the USA. CNN featured an interminable Rose Garden daily news conference in which the current mouthpiece (uh, spokesperson) said Nothing over and over. The lead item on FOX TV was a mother and child missing in WA with the Thurston County police phone number listed. We’ll be on the outlook for them; the kid has a Mohawk so he should be easy to spot. MSNBC is blathering on about CEO compensation. BBC reported that the US Medicare system will be bankrupt by 2017 so we are all considering having our hips and knees replaced soon.

The local Italian news channel had an amazing report on a blind skiier’s downhill race in Vancouver, with Guides leading Racers down the course, shouting directions over their shoulders as they flew down the course. No kidding. It was all in Italian, and we wondered if it is being reported in Seattle. There was a big US contingent at the bottom with flags (not seen by the skiers, for certain) where the racers finish. The blind skiers look better than many of us on the slopes.

Another TV news item reports that a cruise ship departing from the east coast of the US was forced to return to port after a breakout of Norovirus, and we have had a mini-version of our own. Two of our compadres have missed ski days, Larry and Robin, with symptoms of some sort of GI distress followed by fever and exhaustion. They were together the first day on a trip with a guide in Courmayeur, but another of our group who skiied with them is unaffected, and so far, no one else has any signs. May it be so!

Images are promised to the group by various photographers at the Italy/France border, all of our lunch stops, which, miraculously, happened to be simultaneously reached by most of the SkiMaster Variable Speed Cells that depart from the bus with unlimited destinations. We think that there may be some special SkiMasters magnetism at work!

Tonight's dinner started with "Local dried meat, oil and walnuts" which, though unappetizing in description, was a paper-thin arrangement of air-dried beef drizzled with virgin olive oil and dusted with ground walnut meat. There is no way to duplicate this back home, unless Mario Battali's father, ex-Boeing engineer Armandino Battali makes it at his Salumi in Seattle. AMAZING. Two soups and a light version of lasagne followed with main courses of lamb, veal and ham, served with winter vegetables (potato and turnip slices, sauteed nicely) and an improving
cheese trolley preceding the dessert selections. A bright green pistachio torte would have been more appropriate last night (St. Paddy's Day) when we were more likely to voluntarily ingest unnaturally green food.

The spoon passed from Ed to Linda, who apparently commented in public that she very much enjoyed her ride on The World's Longest Poma Lift. No protests were heard from the other Spoon Contenders, who were mostly in the ranks of Forgot Gloves, Trolling for Women with Unzipped Pants...random normal stuff. Thus our week in Italy winds down; tomorrow, we expect increasing clouds and the specter of packing to
leave for Solden. Ciao from Courmayeur!

Skiing and St. Paddy's Day; Claudine Captures the Spirit


Hi Blogsters From Claudeen,
We had a great day at another new area, well, two areas: La Thuile and La Rosiere. They had great off-piste skiing and on - with wonderful slopes for any level. We had the troublesome task of deciding whether we wanted French or Italian food for lunch... French won. Tomorrow, many of us are returning to the area, and to an Italian lunch.

Attached are a few pictures of our day at Chamonix yesterday, today at La Thuile and La Rosiere, and the traditional St Patty's Day party. Of course, the party was dedicated to Tom and Jay.

Tomorrow, many in the group are hiring guides to ski the Valley Blanche from Courmayeur in to Chamonix.

It's so great to know people are checking the blog. Love sharing this with everyone.


Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Courmayeur, Cervinia and Zermatt; And All Returned

Evening #3 in Courmayeur. Ciao from your SkiMaster friends, who had a terrific day in Cervinia, with weather that ranged from frost-bite white out to lunch in the sun on the terrace at the Hotel Astoria. Bob cDonald assumed the Great Mountain Guide role and led 25+ of us across the border from Italy to Switzerland, where the salad and pasta and pizza and Chianti warmed us for the trek back. People who love to pole
were in their glory as we trekked for miles, and rode the longest vertical t-bar in anyone's memory. But the hour-plus bus ride back to Corumayeur was unnaturally quiet as everyone napped following the harrowing return. No lives were lost and no arrests were made.

Ed Koehle graciously received the Spoon from Robb Rough, deservedly, as three friends had to help him retrieve the family heirloom flask he’d dropped from the chair. He was the hands-down winner, and could hardly protest with so many witnesses. In fact, he and Vickie volunteered to change their family name to O’Koehl for tomorrow night’s St. Paddy’s Day party, to be held in their room.

The last report of the mysterious loss (and even more mysterious re-appearance) of a boot bag was incorrect; Robin Calderon got all of her luggage, and though Terry Behme was the one without her boots for a day, she’d rented and fallen in love with the replacement pair, so all’s well and Hal gets to haul three pairs of boots back home.

Dinner back at the Pavillion Hotel was an improvement over last night. We all enjoyed a Caprese Salad (mozzarella on tomato slices with a basil dressing) before choosing between oglio/olio (thin spaghetti with olive oil, garlic and pepper flakes) or two soups. The main courses were beef, veal and lamb dishes, with the dessert trolly featured a chocolate crème cake, a flaky Napoleon and other delicacies. Claudeen must have lit a fire under the chef, as the offerings are much improved over our past two dinners.

Off tomorrow to Chamonix for skiing for most and shopping (for some) with a reminder to wear something green in honor of the day. Without Tom and Jay, it seems a hollow exercise!


Monday, March 15, 2010

Here ya go: Day 1 in Courmayeur

Hallo to SkiMasters everywhere from beautiful, sunny Courmayeur. Thestory in brief on the journey here: not much to report, other than the remarkable surprise of a case of lovely red Italian wine hauled on our bus by DiAnne and Bob McDonald, bought at the growing restauarant enroute to Bormio where we stopped for a 3 hour lunch not long ago. Bob wishes to repeat that the Italian restaurant owners are cousins of proprieters of a favorite Glacier, WA Italian restaurant, and NOT relatives of the McDonalds, much to the regret of all! Bob reports that the restaurant has added a number of rooms to the enterprise so that diners can sleep off the amazing menu, and that the son of the owners still talks about our lunch with them as if it were their personal high point of history.

Various members of the group arrived in Milan early on several airlines and spent the extra time in random activites. Some took a train up to view Alpine glaciers, while others toured LaScala and caught a choral mass in the Duomo. But the good news was that Claudeen had all of her ducks together and on the bus within an hour of the Seattle group’s arrival, and with the sun shining down , we did the 2 hour trip in
comfort and red-wine induced euphoria.

Arrival at the Hotel Pavillion went smoothly, with the exception of one lost boot bag. Several people remember seeing it in the hotel lobby with our mountain of bags, so it is surely safe (and pretty useless) tucked into someone’s closet or forgotten under a bed. Robin Calderon is skiing with a guide and three SkiMasters compadres, in expectation that her missing bag will find it’s way back to her by dinner tonight.

We seem to be sharing the hotel with a group from Japan, a cheerful lot with tanned faces who may have been in the Alps for a while. One woman encountered on the elevator was clutching six bottles of Coke, saying “for gas”, leaving with and apologetic smile and mini bow, making me wonder if I was to return the gesture. I said Ciao instead.

As promised, the Menu Maven has comments on the first dinner, not all entirely positive. Several people seemed surprised by what they’d selected from the menu card, including an undercooked slightly crunchy risotto (al dente is not crunchy) a plate of veal that was NOT cooked at all, as expected. Well, Carpaccio isn’t cooked, but that was not indicated on the menu translation. I guess that we’ll need menu
consults for the rest of the week. Salads are not self-selected at a bar, but offered from a trolley, but the trolley did not make it to all tables. Dessert was a selection of indifferent slices of indeterminate composition, one in un-natural colors. Well, the cheese tray was nice!

Breakfast offerings were scanty, with scrambled eggs disappearing early and not replenished. This is always a learning experience!

Your reporter decided to skip the first day’s skiing, as a former Rotary exchange student (Vincent Mercy, Bellevue High, Class of 1988, coincidentally a classmate of Larina Davis!) is visiting for the day with his fiancé, Minh Trang, from Lausanne, Switzerland, which is equidistant to Courmayeur from Milan. Vincent went skiing with the group, while I decided to stay in town with Minh Trang, to hear the story about her horrific snowmobile accident three years ago in Quebec. Let’s just say that skiing is still my choice of winter sport, so you can keep your SkiDoo.

Not being able to describe the on-hill experience, I’ll say that it is a gorgeous Alpine view from our hotel on the valley floor, with the skiers’ choice of three cable cars and gondolas headed up to the broad open slopes of Plan de Gabba, or the yet higher point of Cresta D’Arp. Mont Bianco (Mont Blanc) is Door Number 3, with the chance to ski over the top to Chamonix at Punta Hellbronner. There seem to be many opportunities to get lost, so surely there will be serious competition for the first Spoon Award of 2010.

A light breeze and 34º temps on the valley floor promises interesting snow
conditions. The north side had to be Styrofoam hard in the morning, and with several of our group renting skis, we’ll certainly hear reports of equipment challenges. All-day sun may make snow chunky as the hours pass, and we’ll get the viewpoint of the group who hired a mountain guide, as well as commentary from those intrepid souls who venture out with Robb Rough’s declared walkie-talkie channel written in
ballpoint on their wrist.

More tomorrow, with Spoon News, weather and snow conditions from Those Who Dared! Ciao from Carol Mast

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Courmayeur; The Facts About the Resort

Is Courmayeur a new area for you. Well, here is what a reporter from Britain's "Telegraph" newspaper thinks of the place.

Courmayeur is a traditional old Italian mountaineering village that has retained much of its character. Pila, La Thuile and Chamonix are an easy drive or bus ride and Cervinia is reachable.

• Charming old village, with car-free centre and stylish shops and bars
• Stunning views of Mont Blanc
• Access to the famous Vallée Blanche run to Chamonix (day trips there are possible by road, too)
• Heli-skiing available
• Comprehensive snowmaking
• Some good mountain restaurants
• Relatively small area, with mainly short runs; high-mileage piste-bashers should stay away
• Lack of nursery slopes and easy runs for confidence-building
• No tough pistes
• No pistes back to the village, only to Dolonne (where you catch a bus)
• Crowded at weekends
Attractive and sophisticated
The village has a charming traffic-free centre of attractive shops, cobbled streets and well-preserved buildings. An Alpine museum and a statue of a long-dead mountain rescue hero add to the historical feel.
The centre has a great evening atmosphere, focused around the Via Roma.
As the lifts close, people pile into the many bars, some of which are very civilised. Others wander in and out of the many small shops, which include lots of smart clothes shops, nice delis and a good bookshop.
At weekends people-watching is part of the scene, when the fur coats of the Milanese and Torinese take over
Buses to the lifts
You cannot ski back to the village itself. But a huge cable car on the southern edge will take you to and from Plan Checrouit, at the heart of the slopes.A gondola from Dolonne (a few minutes’ bus ride away) offers a popular alternative way up and you can ski back there. Both the cable car and the gondola are bus-served, and while parking at the cable car is very limited, there’s a big car park at Dolonne. Many hotels run shuttles to and from Dolonne.
Drivers can also go to Entrèves, up the valley, where there is a large car park at the cable car. Most people leave skis or boards and boots in lockers up the mountain or at the lift base. Buses, infrequent but timetabled (though a 2009 visitor could not get a timetable to take away), go to La Palud, just beyond Entrèves, for the Monte Bianco cable car to Punta Helbronner (for Vallée Blanche). Taxis are easily arranged for evening excursions to valley restaurants.
Mont Blanc rules
The high glacial slopes of Mont Blanc’s massif overlook Courmayeur’s slopes. The views from the high points at Cresta d’Arp and Cresta Youla are stunning.
Good for most of the season
Courmayeur’s slopes are not high – mostly between 1700m and 2250m.
Those above Val Veny face north or north-west, so they keep their snow well, but the Plan Checrouit side is too sunny for comfort in late season.
There is snowmaking on most main runs, including the red run to Dolonne in the valley.
So good coverage in early and mid-season is virtually assured – we’ve been there in a snow drought and enjoyed decent skiing entirely on man-made snow.
Good reports
The Monte Bianco ski school gets good reviews: ‘the best instructor for ages – possibly ever’.
There is a thriving guides’ association ready to help you explore the area’s off-piste; it has produced a helpful booklet showing the main possibilities.
The Courmayeur school has ‘a more snowboardy and young funky image’.
Some facilities
There are children’s playgrounds at Dolonne and Val Veny and a nursery at Plan Checrouit.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Courmayeur, Italy and Soelden, Austria: Ski Masters Are on the Way

Welcome to the 2010 Ski Masters Euro trip blog. In 2009 I initiated a daily trip report from Europe so that friends and families could follow the skier's antics without enduring a nine hour flight. I suspect the three readers enjoyed the reports. Since I'm staying home this year Carol Mast has agreed to apply her considerable talent with words to keep us informed as to the progress of our skiing and traveling friends

She is so anxious to begin that she has written a sample report to give you a hint of things to come. Enjoy the sample. More is on the way. Check back. She will try to send frequent reports and I will try to post them frequently.

Carol Writes: Well, it's started already! We drove back from Ketchum recently and arrived to find an email saying that our BA Europe flight COULD be cancelled due to a possible cabin staff strike. TERRIFIC! I think that Bob and Dianne McDonald fly BA also, so there could be some Ski Master MIAs from the get-go.

I'm going to be doing a blog for the SkiMasters back in Seattle and will begin when we reach Soelden. In the past, people have done reports after returning, but now with laptops, we'll be able to keep the Folks Back Home in touch. Normally, there is a blow-by-blow from the ski instructors that details numbers of runs, vertical feet skied, narrowness of chutes...who biffed said chute. My entries will probably be like this:

"Skiing OK with overcast skies, zillions of out-of-control Stem Christie people from Innsbruck swarming the mountainside. Moguls formed by 9:25am, knee deep Cascade Concrete off piste. Ice at the bottom, bare spots...had to ski through farmer's yards to get down in cow poop.

Rode 32 T-bars for a total of 4 minute downhill run to next T-bar.

FABULOUS lunch at AlpenHut with a really terrific beer. Spaetzle (mac and cheese but hand-made) and schweinhax'n (roast pork with crackling skin) so the cholesterol levels are higher than Mont Blanc! Two of our skiiers got lost and had to spend $106 each to get back to the hotel by taxi. Their leader got The Spoon, (explained below) as he insisted that they turn right instead of left at a Y on the trail at 4:35pm. They missed dinner, but appeared in time to get The Spoon.

Dinner at the ParkHotel in Soelden, as usual was 5 Stars. First course was a wild mushroom strudel with a brown butter sauce. To die for. Main course was duck, grilled with peaches preserved from the hotel's orchard, in a demi-glace reduction over garlic-studded creamed potato gratin, with sauted baby green beans the size of toothpicks, sweet and tender. The ParkHotel salad bar is open before and during dinner, and one could live on this feature alone. Lobster salad, freshest baby lettuces and grilled vegetables sit alongside every kind of arranged fruit and smoked fish, sausage platter and cheese.

Tonight's dessert bar features frozen treats, with 14 sorbets and ice creams on offer, all made in house. Fresh berries and three chocolate sauces were in silver bowls and Schlagobers (whipped cream) stood in a crystal urn with a 3' diameter. Larry likes the wine list here and between him and John Anderson, we're working our way through it."

I am not kidding. Not one little bit. And THAT is Austria...can you imagine Italy? Well, I am not just joking when I say that I go on this trip to eat.

The Spoon is an ancient (1947) award for the big FUBAR of the day. You can get it for getting lost, breaking a bone, leaving your heirloom family jewelry in the public bathroom...and then get it AGAIN when it is TURNED IN to the desk three days later. Larry got on our last trip for lighting a match in the bathroom (he is soooo considerate) which set off a smoke alarm, which in turn, closed and locked all the fire doors on the floor. Some people were locked into their rooms/hallways for over an hour. They called him "The Ring of Fire".

So, this is the kind of reporting your can expect from this trip! My next posting could be from the BA lounge at Heathrow...on March 22nd!


Thursday, February 4, 2010

Whistler 2010: Bring Your Travel Pass and Money

The Whistler Resort is ready for the 2010 Olympics. Information kiosks are spotted throughout the village, TV anchor booths are being readied for the arrival of the broadcasters, the medals stage is nearly finished and you can sense an air of anticipation.

At this point, eight days before the games begin, the crowd is noticeably younger because many of them are event workers and volunteers, not media execs and notables. Some of the athletes have arrived but the real flood will take place next week.

And, yes, there is plenty of snow at Whistler. While it may be thin for events near Vancouver the coverage at Whistler is not a risk. The down hillers will be able to blast downhill.

For those of us that drive, the road to the resort is new and improved. Legendary curves have been removed and much of the route has been widened. But there are still choke points and a system of reversible lanes will be in force during the Olympics to speed traffic north in the am and south in the pm.

To further control congestion a pass is required to travel the last 40 miles from Squamish to Whistler between 6:00 am and 6:00 pm daily during the games. Regular folks will need to arrange for a pass when arranging their lodging in Whistler. A Squamish roadblock is set to go into effect and they will not let you pass.

In addition to a pass you should bring money; lots and lots of money. First there are “must have” souvenirs everywhere. You can’t leave Whistler without some sort of gadget. Second, be prepared for “special Olympic pricing” at the restaurants. We stopped by one of our favorite haunts and the price rise was very discernable.

“Yes, I was a little surprised by the new menu prices,” our server commented. “But everyone’s doing it.”

With the Canadian dollar trading near par with the U.S. the price you see is very near the price in U.S. dollars that you will pay.

But, hey, the Olympics are a once in a lifetime event. There still may be tickets available to some events. We will find out today. In the meantime we came here to ski and ski we will. More Olympics news later.